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Nudge, Test, and Escalate Gradually

Nudge, Test, and Escalate Gradually

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L E A D I N G

Q U I E T L Y

There are several reasons quiet leaders take this approach. One
is prudence. As we have seen, they would rather not risk their
careers and reputations by taking all their money out of the bank
and staking it on one big bet. Another reason is their modesty.
Quiet leaders don’t usually believe they are smart enough to answer
difficult questions solely by thinking about them, so they drill
down, gather facts, do hardheaded analysis, and look for creative
ways to bend the rules and create room to maneuver.
But sometimes these efforts aren’t sufficient, and the cases we
have examined indicate why. The basic reason is that world is simply too fluid. There was no way Nick Russo could have anticipated
what would happen in the Port Authority terminal. Rebecca
Olson could not have predicted that Richard Millar would imperil
his own reputation by engaging in guerilla warfare against the hospital. Captain Jill Matthews never anticipated that she would be
highly praised for an inspection that never took place. We often
look into the future and imagine one or two possibilities, unaware
of the myriad ways in which things can actually turn out. As
Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven
and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”1
Shakespeare’s words are so familiar that we can easily overlook
their truth and force. In fluid situations with many contingencies,
the challenge often isn’t hitting the target but locating it. In these
circumstances, successful leadership depends on learning, and
learning involves taking the right small steps. By testing, probing,
and experimenting, quiet leaders gradually get a sense of the flow
of events, hazards to be avoided, and opportunities they can
exploit. Instead of a problem-solution paradigm, they rely on an
act-learn-act-learn approach. To see what this means in practice
and how useful this tactic can be, we look carefully at a series of
recent events in a small, fast growing consulting firm.

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Partnership Politics
“I hate all her damn plants.”
“Your problem isn’t plants.”
“I know,” Eddy said. “But I’m thinking some of them are the
kind that eat insects.”
Eddy Carter was complaining to his friend and coworker, Dave
Roussell, about Rachel DeLand, a partner and the chief operating
officer (COO) of the consulting firm where they worked. Their
conversation had little to do with the lush foliage in DeLand’s
office and a great deal to do with the witch-hunt she had started.
DeLand had said she was going to “nail” whoever had been spreading malicious rumors about her. Though she didn’t yet know it,
Eddy Carter was the person she was after.
Carter was the human resources manager for Web Advisors, a
fast-growing firm that trained organizations to use the Internet. One
of his main responsibilities was creating a weekly schedule assigning
consultants to projects. This complicated task involved balancing the
consultants’ expertise, the preferences of project managers, and the
likely requirements of future projects. Web Advisors was also growing very fast and hiring rapidly, which made Carter’s job even harder.
Typically he spent three hours or so drafting a schedule. Then he
gave it to DeLand, who made the final changes.
DeLand usually rubberstamped whatever Carter proposed,
unless an assignment involved an attractive destination or an elite
client. Then DeLand assigned herself to the project, with little
regard for the project managers who may have worked for months
to land the engagement. DeLand also made changes involving consultants who had upset her. They could be assigned to weeks on
end of Sunday evening through Friday night travel. When Carter

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TE

AM
FL
Y

objected to some of these changes, DeLand would remind him that
she was the COO and overrule his complaints. The schedule, however, was always announced as “their decision”—spreading any staff
discontent between the two of them.
Carter knew that other partners sometimes took advantage of
their positions, but DeLand was carrying things to an extreme. In
fact, the problem had grown worse in recent weeks, and Carter felt
responsible for this development. This was why he decided to talk
with Roussell.
Carter and Roussell had both joined Web Advisors five years
earlier. Both were in their early thirties, married, lived in the same
suburb, and had two children. They even looked a little like each
other—both were large, relaxed, cheerful men—and their coworkers called them the “interchangeable parts.” When Roussell asked
Carter why he felt responsible for the problem, Roussell told him
about a conversation a couple months earlier with Mike Zinn, a
partner at the firm.
“Why did you tell Zinn?” Roussell asked.
“I didn’t plan to, but he seemed to be sniffing around the situation. So I sort of played dumb. I told him a couple things Rachel
had done, stuff he could confirm on his own. He drew some conclusions, and asked me if I thought this thing was serious. So I told
him it might be.”
“Was that it?”
“Yeah,” Carter said. “It was like he knew something already.
What he told me was that he would take care of things and I should
forget we’d had this conversation.”
“So then what happened?” Roussell was being a little pushy,
which wasn’t his style.
Carter answered, “Well, nothing really. Until last month when
Rachel asked me all of a sudden if I had heard any rumors about
her or complaints about consultants’ assignments. I told her I’d

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only heard the usual ones. The idiot actually bought that. I think
she was so upset she wasn’t really paying attention. And she was
screwing around with her plants, watering them or clipping them
or something, while we talked.”
“So I was sitting there,” Carter continued, “thinking about putting Drano into her flower pots, and she started telling me she was
going to get even with whoever was spreading rumors about her.”
Carter noticed that Roussell didn’t even acknowledge the Drano joke
and continued, “Lately, she’s had sort of an S.O.B. of the week campaign. Somebody’s her prime suspect and gets lousy assignments.”
“So what are you going to do?” Roussell asked.
“I don’t know.”
“You better lie low,” Roussell advised, raising his voice and
almost glaring at Carter. “Look, I’m in sales. I see all the time how
the partners love Rachel because she keeps everything running
while they’re out making money. If you stay cool, she’ll never find
out it was you. So keep your head down.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s right,” Carter said, looking past Roussell.
Then he picked up his coffee cup, said thanks, and walked back to
his office.
Now Carter was confused. He hated what was going on and
felt DeLand was using him, but Roussell was basically telling him
not to fight a battle he couldn’t win. Where did that leave him?
As Carter sat at his desk, he started thinking he should back off.
He’d already done his bit by talking with Zinn, and it wasn’t his job
to supervise DeLand. And people who didn’t like Rachel or their
travel schedules could look for other jobs. In fact, he’d done that
himself. Carter grew up on his grandfather’s small farm in South
Dakota. The whole family worked hard all year round just to make
ends meet. While he lived there, he did more than his bit. He spent
years busting his chops, finally deciding it wasn’t the life he wanted.
So he worked his way through college and graduate school. He

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didn’t like being pushed around and didn’t like seeing it happen to
other people. That had been the story of his grandparents’ life.
Carter could feel the tension creeping up his neck. He picked up
the phone and called Mike Zinn. Maybe Zinn would tell him that
the problem was over. If not, Carter would tell him about DeLand’s
witch-hunt. Zinn was in Florida, where he had moved two years
earlier for health reasons. Because he wasn’t involved in day-to-day
activities at headquarters, some people thought Zinn had a more
objective perspective, but he also had less feel for internal politics.
Zinn picked the phone up right away and said, “Eddy, you read
my mind. I was just about to call you.”
Carter thought that this was good news. “Good,” he said, “I
want to talk about the thing with Rachel.”
But before he could say anything else, Zinn interrupted. “I’ve
been thinking about that, and I think what’s best is for you two to
sit down and work your problems out.”
Hearing this, Carter lurched forward and almost blurted out,
“What the hell are you telling me? You said you’d take care of
everything. Are you trying to get me fired?” Instead he said,
“Mike, tell me what you mean.”
Zinn paused a little too long before replying, “I just think the
people involved in situations have to work out their own issues. We
tell our clients to empower their people, and I think we should
practice what we preach. We really don’t think it would do any
good for me to swoop in from the outside when I don’t even know
the facts.”
Carter wondered who the “we” was, but he knew Zinn well
enough to recognize that he had reached a dead-end.
“Well,” he mumbled, “I’ll think about it, and . . . ”
Zinn cut him off. “That’s great and keep me posted.”
The conversation was over. Zinn had made a U-turn. Carter
wondered if perhaps DeLand had some dirt on Zinn, which would

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explain the about-face. That seemed unlikely, however—Carter
couldn’t remember hearing anything negative about Zinn. Perhaps
the other partners were trying to force Zinn out of the company,
thinking he was no longer pulling his own weight. Perhaps something else was happening on the partnership chessboard.
The next day, when Carter met with DeLand, she asked him
how he was doing. All his antennae went up.
“Just great. No problems at all,” he replied, watching her carefully cut a leaf off a tiny, flowering plant. “How are you doing?”
DeLand looked up at him, smiled a little, and said, “I’m well,
thank you.”
Surprised by her friendliness, Carter said, “It looks to me like
the business is really doing well, too.” He said this like a throwaway
but was listening very carefully.
“I think that’s right,” DeLand said, “though there are the usual
ups and downs.” Then she blurted out “Damn it!” apparently
because she had made a mistake with her pruning. This was the
first time he had heard DeLand use any strong language. She put
the scissors back on her desk, and then said, “Let’s work on this
week’s schedule.”
This ended the small talk, and the meeting was over a few minutes later. As Carter walked back to his office, he realized that, for the
third week in a row, DeLand hadn’t changed his proposed schedule.

Nudging and Testing
How effectively had Carter handled his problem? The situation he
faced called for quiet leadership rather than dramatic action. Carter
later said, “Each day, I had to balance my intense desire to confront
Rachel head-on with my being a new husband, a new homeowner,

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and a specialized manager in a down economy.” He added, “While
I believed I was right in shedding light on Rachel’s ways, I was not
convinced that standing on a soapbox delivering a sermon to the
partners was worth the price of a one-way trip to the unemployment line.”
Carter followed much of the advice in the previous chapters.
He was realistic about his situation: In a firm dominated by partners, he was an outsider and knew it. He also remained aware that
he didn’t really understand what was going on. Because of his realism, Carter moved carefully. He didn’t fire any moral salvos in the
direction of Rachel DeLand. He didn’t use up any of his political
capital, and he tried to drill down into his problem. But had Carter
really accomplished anything? He did give Mike Zinn a partial
account of what DeLand had been doing, so at least the problem
got some senior-level attention. And, for some reason, DeLand had
been off the warpath for the last three weeks.
In short, Carter’s efforts at leadership seem to be the equivalent
of a $50 savings bond. He had earned a very modest, safe return on
a small, cautious investment. But this conclusion assumes that the
story is over. Another possibility is that Carter and everyone else
were simply enjoying the lull before the storm. And that turned out
to be the case. During the next weeks, the minor tremors at Web
Advisor became a strong earthquake.
Fortunately, Carter was well prepared for what happened, and
he was ready precisely because of the cautious approach he had
taken. Even though Carter had done nothing dramatic, he was
implicitly following some invaluable advice that Sherlock Holmes
gave his good friend Dr. Watson. Watson, of course, was perpetually mystified by Holmes’s ability to grasp things that Watson had
missed. On one occasion, Holmes gave Watson a very simple, blunt
explanation of the difficulty. “You see,” Holmes told him, “but you
do not observe.”

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Eddy Carter had been observing carefully—and not from a
shaded seat in the grandstands. He had been actively inquiring,
testing, checking, and probing, all with the aim of getting a feel for
what was going on. It was this careful, unobtrusive preparation that
ultimately helped him safeguard his job and halt Rachel DeLand’s
abuse of her position.
One of the most important things Carter did was to keep an open
mind. In most organizations, the grapevine offers pseudocertainties
about what is really going on, and individuals who are in uncertain,
precarious situations, like Carter, often latch onto these counterfeit
certainties. Fortunately, however, Carter knew he had far more questions than answers. Why was Zinn so eager to help at the beginning?
Did he already know something? Why did he back off? Had he said
something to DeLand? What halted her effort to unmask the
informer? Did she suspect Carter? Was she laying a trap for him?
Living with these questions and uncertainties was no easy task.
Looking back once the whole episode was over, Carter said he felt
“like he had been walking on a tightrope for ages.” But he stayed on
the rope and didn’t rely on Zinn, Roussell, or anyone else to tell
him what was going on. He didn’t try to alleviate his anxiety by
devising his own theory and committing himself to it. Instead, he
watched and waited, trying to learn and observe as much as possible.
One way he did this was by playing dumb. All too often, people look for chances to impress others, by talking a lot and showing
what they know. While they are talking, however, they aren’t
learning. Carter, in contrast, kept his views to himself. He asked
simple, open-ended, unthreatening questions, and he listened very
closely to what people said and how they said it.
This required a good deal of restraint. Recall during his phone
conversation with Mike Zinn. Carter immediately knew that something had caused Zinn to back off his earlier commitment, and he was
shocked and disappointed when Zinn encouraged him to confront

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DeLand himself. But Carter didn’t say what he felt and instead
asked Zinn what he meant. He didn’t want to make Zinn even
more gun-shy by pumping him for answers, and he wanted to keep
Zinn talking and learn what he could.
Similarly, Carter also tried to get DeLand to talk a little, after
she surprised him by asking how he was. He didn’t learn much
from this effort, though he did get a clear sense that something was
on her mind. And when Roussell asked Carter what he was going
to do, Carter said simply that he didn’t know. Carter was holding
his cards to his chest—a wise move given all the uncertainties.
Carter’s restraint was coupled with flexibility. When he called
Zinn, he planned to tell him everything, but when he realized that
Zinn had no interest in hearing what he thought, Carter abandoned his first plan and improvised another one. He got Zinn to
talk a little more and ultimately reveal—when he said “we really
don’t think”—that others were now involved in the problem.

The Flow of Events
What did all this nudging, testing, and observing add up to? A
critic could say that Carter had failed to exercise leadership, that he
had substituted gossiping and low-grade spying for actually doing
something about the problem. If Carter really wanted to make a
difference, he should have told Zinn everything he knew in their
first conversation and pushed Zinn to act when they talked on the
phone. Then, if Zinn still wouldn’t respond, Carter should have
found a way to go over or around him and report the problem.
One answer to this criticism is that Carter didn’t want to risk his
job. If he had pushed DeLand too hard, she would have treated him
like a dead leaf on one of her beloved plants. But the real answer is

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that Carter was actually doing much more than it seemed. In fact,
Carter was doing something fundamental to responsible leadership
and taking steps that proved critical when the DeLand problem
reached its climax.
Carter’s nudging and probing were helping him get a sense for
the flow of events. This was critically important because he faced a
situation that often confronts quiet leaders. Like Carter, they try
hard to drill down into their problem, but the world still looks
pretty murky. Rebecca Olson, for example, didn’t know how
strongly the board would support Richard Millar. Captain Jill
Matthews had no idea whether the Inspector General was in
cahoots with the sloppy inspection team. Garrett Williams was
unsure which of the bank employees would be able to make the
grade, even if they got a fair chance. And Nick Russo had no idea
what he would have done had he followed Jerome off the subway.
But despite the uncertainties and risks, Eddy Carter did not
take Roussell’s advice, fold his tent, and move on. He continued to
inquire, probe, and nudge. For the most part, Carter was not
drilling down—there weren’t many facts for him to gather and analyze. Nor was he looking for ways to bend the rules. Instead,
Carter was getting a sense for what might be going on around him.
His nudging and testing were helping him develop a feel, a rough
intuition, for the drift of events at Web Advisors.
A feel for the flow of events is an indispensable guide to murky,
evolving situations like Carter’s. This intuitive sense is a matter of
perceiving subtle, emerging patterns in the interplay of ostensibly
unrelated events and actions. It is an implicit awareness of everything that might be going on in a situation. A sense of the flow of
events expresses itself in feelings rather than fact and hardheaded
analysis. It points in a general direction, sometimes urgently, but
doesn’t provide detailed plans of action.
This intuitive sense is an aspect of life that can be learned but

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not taught. In “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” a famous essay on
Leo Tolstoy, the British intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin wrote
that the leaders Tolstoy most admired had “an awareness of the
interplay of the imponderable with the ponderable, of the ‘shape’
of things in general or of a specific situation.”2 Card players put this
more simply, saying you have to know “when to hold ’em and
when to fold ’em.” They are describing the same thing, an implicit
understanding that is both conscious and subconscious, objective
and subjective, emotional and rational. It cannot be pinned down
and dissected like an insect on a lab tray.
In Carter’s case, his instincts were telling him that he should
tread very carefully. Although Web Advisors was growing rapidly,
its customers were satisfied, and profits and bonuses were up,
everyone Carter dealt with seemed edgy and off balance. His good
friend Roussell, who was usually cheerful and relaxed, had lost his
sense of humor. Instead of offering advice as a friend, Roussell had
interrogated him like a district attorney and then barked out what
was almost an order. Mike Zinn had made a complete U-turn and
couldn’t wait to get off the phone with Carter. In their last meeting, Rachel DeLand was jumpy and awkward. And these weren’t
the only warnings. Carter’s aching shoulders and neck seemed to
be telling him the same thing.
Something was in the wind, but Carter couldn’t put his finger
on it. So instead of taking Zinn’s advice, he waited and watched.

The Partners’ Meeting
Carter’s anxiety grew over the next couple days because he received
several e-mail messages from Mike Zinn. They encouraged him to
talk with DeLand about the problem. Carter responded that he was

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